Five Things You Should Never Say to a Translator

It’s likely that the first time you get in touch with a translator to learn about his or her services, or simply end up talking to one for whatever reason, that you won’t know much about the work a translator does. You don’t need to feel bad; it’s normal. However, if you want to avoid stepping in…to a sticky situation, take a look at this list of five things you should never say to a translator. These are statements and questions that tend to annoy us quite a bit. Read on to find out why.

How do you say [word X] in [language Y]?

This is often the first thing those of us who are professionals in this sector have to explain: translators and interpreters are not dictionaries. No, we don’t know every word of the foreign languages we have mastered. We don’t even know every word of our mother tongue. It’s impossible to know every word in a given language. What’s more, sometimes we even have to put up with being asked to translate a certain word…in languages we don’t know at all! Okay, so asking what a given word means doesn’t have to be that irritating. But what you should avoid at all costs is questioning the professionalism of the translator if the answer is that he or she doesn’t know.

So you’re a translator, i.e. you translate books/at conferences

This phrase has multiple variants (e.g. “so you’re a courtroom interpreter, i.e. a stenographer”). The first thing I should clarify is the difference between translators and interpreters: while translators work with written texts, interpreters work with spoken language. That said, interpreters do not only work at conferences, but also in meetings, the courts, etc. In the case of translators, we not only translate books, but any type of text: contracts, instruction manuals, websites…By some lucky coincidence the person you’re talking to may be dedicated exclusively to literary translation, but it’s unlikely.

I studied a semester in [country Z], I think I could be a translator

Again, a sentence with different variations. As translators we are aware that people say this kind of thing due to a lack of knowledge about what our profession entails, but to make a statement like that is to underestimate our work. Translation is not only about knowing foreign languages, but also about possessing an in-depth understanding of the culture from which the original text comes and into which the target text is addressed, mastering specific computer software, and much more. Please don’t say things like this. It hurts.

Is that what you’re trying to charge me? You’re not a translator, you’re a thief!

Or the more extreme alternative: “what’s that about a price? Do it for free!” While the previous statements are the result of mere ignorance and the logical thing to do is be patient and explain that someone is misinformed and why, there is no justification for this one. A person who says this is trying to do damage, with all he’s got. The most common way to charge for a translation is to assign a price per word. Let’s imagine your translator’s rate is ten cents per word. Doesn’t seem like much, does it? All right, but if your text has 10,000 words, you’ll be paying 1,000 euros. Before becoming too scandalized, take into account the hours of work involved, the training already acquired, and the expenses associated with the profession…You can always try to negotiate, but don’t overdo it.

Translate? But Google can do that!

The crown jewel. If you ever say this to a translator, you’d better be prepared for anything. I assure you, he’s not going to take it well. And hey, if you want to trust your text to Google Translate, go for it. However, if what you want is a free and sloppy translation, I’d personally recommend your cousin who studied a semester in [country Z].

In short, try not to discount the work of others. Have common sense, ask about what you don’t know, and don’t take anything for granted. In the next blog post, you can read about possible alternatives to these banned phrases that will make you look great in front of any translator you meet.